History of Independent Dreamcast Development

This article is taken from the work-in-progress second issue of the free fanzine, Dream On Magazine.

It's hard to believe that Sega released the Dreamcast twenty years ago! It feels like only yesterday. Luckily, the indie developers have been busy these past decades, so there's lots of dreamy goodness to cover. 

The second issue has taken a long time to come out due to huge mistakes on my part, and I sincerely apologize for that. However, the wait should be worth it, as I've had some awesome help. The DC Evolution crew, the same folks who put together the excellent compilation disc, "The Sandman #1", is helping to make sure that this issue will be the best it can be. 

So, feel free to dive in, and read up on the creation of the independent Dreamcast movement. I hope you find as much enjoyment out of it as we've had creating it. 

Dream On #2, and by extension, this article, would not have been possible without the help of BlueCrab, Christuserloeser, Idarcl, DCDayDreamer, and lyonhrt.

Bernie Stolar opens the floodgates to rumors of Saturn's successor.

On 23 June, 1997, Sega's Chief Operating Officer announced "the Saturn is not our future", publicly revealing for the first time that they were working on a successor. This console would use a
Hitachi SH-4 for its CPU and an ARM processor for sound. The code name for the console was Katana, but it was given the name Dreamcast by the time it hit retail. It was released in Japan on
27 November, 1998, in North America on 9 September, 1999, in Europe on 14 October, 1999, and in Oceania on 30 November, 1999. It was discontinued just a scant few years later when
Sega announced that it was discontinuing the console on 23 January, 2001. Production of new
games continued in North America until spring 2002, in Europe and Oceania until winter 2002,
and in Japan until 2007. However, it continues to have an active commercial life among
independent game developers.

A collection of official MIL-CD enhanced music discs.

The Dreamcast continues to be attractive to indies because the games can be sold on CD without having to obtain a license from Sega, which drastically reduces the overhead that is usually present in commercial game development for consoles. This ability actually stems from a vulnerability discovered early on in the lifespan of the Dreamcast. Sega of Japan developed a multimedia system called the MIL-CD, or Music Interactive Live-CD.

The purpose of this format was to allow music companies to release music CDs with multimedia
functions that could be played on a Dreamcast. However, it soon became apparent that it could
be used to allow the Dreamcast to boot code on a standard CD-ROM, without needing to use the proprietary GD-ROM format that Sega used for Dreamcast games (as well as some arcade
games with hardware based on the Sega Dreamcast and Microsoft Xbox).

The Gameshark CDX CD-ROM, memory card, and instructional VHS tape.

The independent game development community soon discovered the Mil-CD releases, and adapted them for their own code. The first demonstration of independently developed software intended for commercial sale was the GameShark CDX. This was the localized version of Datel's Action Replay CDX, as Interact had acquired the rights for release in North America. It was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show, which ran from 6 January to 9 January, 2000.

Hitmen's A.G.E. demo utilised a serial port device called the Dreamcast Debug Handler.

The first non-commercial independent code to successfully run on the Dreamcast was achieved by the demo group Hitmen. Their A.G.E. demo, a technical demo for the Dreamcast that displayed stylized text, graphics, and music, premiered at the Mekka & Symposium 2000 convention in Fallingbostel, Germany on 23 April, 2000. This demo was never released publicly, as it was developed using a custom coding library and required the Dreamcast to be connected to a host computer using a custom serial port adapter known as the Dreamcast Debug Handler.

The cover of bleemcast! for Metal Gear Solid.

The commercial PlayStation emulator, bleemcast!, was then demonstrated at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, or E3, which ran from 11 May to 13 May, 2000. The Action Replay CDX became the first independent commercial release when it was released to retail on 2 June, 2000. Marcus Comstedt, who would later become known for his Dreamcast ports of the Super Nintendo emulator SNES9x and the adventure game interpreter ScummVM, reverse engineered this disc and
built his own library for the Dreamcast using the open source GNU C compiler for the SH-4 processor. He wrote documentation detailing the process of booting code directly on the Dreamcast, and released a simple "Hello World" demo on 20 June, 2000.

Utopia's Boot CD, modified from the Teapot Demo in the Sega Katana library.

Unfortunately, at the same time the indie developers were reverse engineering the Mil-CD format,
software crackers discovered the loophole that was employed by the Action Replay CDX. A pirate
group known as Utopia released a CD image intended to boot illegal game rips on 22 June, 2000.
This bootloader was quickly followed by a rip of the game Dead or Alive 2 on 23 June, 2000. Due
to the inability of their game rips to boot on their own, all of the early pirate releases required the
use of their bootloader, which became known as the Utopia Boot CD. The bootloader itself was
created by modifying the teapot demo that was included with the official Sega Katana library.

Other pirate groups soon released game rips in the form of self-booting images which would run on a Dreamcast directly after being burnt to a CD-R, eliminating the limitations of the Utopia Boot CD. Sega's much-touted GD-ROM (Gigabyte Disc) format, which was meant to be a hindrance to piracy, was soon obsolete, as the only restriction towards playing illegal copies of Dreamcast games was now the slow connection speeds of most internet modems of the time.
The DC Tonic demo disc, distributed at E3 2001.

Thankfully, the legal independent development scene thrived, even as the pirate releases continued to pour out. HeroZero improved upon Marcus Comstedt's code with hzlib. Mr. Comstedt continued working on his library, libronin. Cryptic Allusion, a coding group which would later become known
for their Dreamcast dancing game Feet of Fury, developed a new library known as KallistiOS, or KOS, initially known as the libdream library, and then expanding beyond its forbearer. Independent developers created a CD of software running on the Dreamcast, called DC Tonic. This disc was handed out to attendees at E3 2001, which ran from 17 May to 19 May, 2001.

Feet of Fury, the first indie commercial game for Dreamcast.

The first indie commercial game was the aforementioned Feet of Fury. It was developed by Cryptic Allusion, and published by The GOAT Store on 7 July, 2003. It was developed with KOS, which is the most used library for indie Dreamcast development. Libronin continues to be used as well, such as with ScummVM and the Dreamcast port of Cave Story. Both libraries continue to be supported and updated by their respective developers, and commercial and freeware Dreamcast software continues to be released, even to this day.


Caleb said...

I forgot all about the Dreamcast Port of Cave Story!

Great write up!

way2easy said...

Great article! Where would we find issue one of Dream on?

Jennifer McMurray said...

I released Dream On issue #1 at the Midwest Gaming Classic in 2004. Unfortunately, I've lost all of my backups during that period due to multiple changes of residence in the interim. Two interviews from the first Dream On magazine have survived to the present day, though.

One interview is with Dan Potter, also known as Haibane, the founder of Cryptic Allusion and the primary coder behind KallistiOS (Lawrence Sebald, also known as BlueCrab, is the maintainer of KallistiOS today), the development library that most indie Dreamcast games use. Haibane also was the coder and artist for the first commercial indie Dreamcast game, Feet of Fury:


The other interview is with Roddy Toomim, Cryptic Allusion's musician, who created many of the songs in Feet of Fury:


I remember some posts stating that a few people who attended the show still have Dream On #1, but that was a decade ago, or more. I'm trying to contact them though, as I'd love to be able to put the magazine online for history's sake, if nothing else.

DDT said...

I wish someone would continue to optimize Cave Story, and possibly release it properly (hello JoshProd!), sadly it seems abandoned..

Tom Charnock said...

Great article Jennifer :)

MrKnowNothing said...

Great article, could I ask where you got the info from regarding how long Dreamcast games were in production?

Anthony817 said...

@DDT, Cave Story was updated as recently as 2017 and it has a lot of fixes and changes. It is such a shame that nobody ever knew about it because the dev released his stuff only on github and not on forums where most of the DC community is active. I tried it out and it ran really smoothly.

You can get the 2017 update of Cave Story here as well as his other updates. I is fully optimized for the Dreamcast now and runs beautifully.


Anthony817 said...

@DDT, well then you would be happy to know that it has been continuously updated since 2013, and the last update was done in 2017. It received no mention on any sites. I feel the developer just didn't put in the work to let the wider community know that he was constantly updating it over the past years. Just check out my reddit post about it and you can find links to the latest build of the game.